The Carretera Austral is a beautiful “scenic highway” in Southern Chile that opens up the best of Patagonia right before your eyes. It is a stunning north/south route of over 700 miles where you are just awestruck by natural beauty at every turn. We took almost 3 weeks to drive this mostly unpaved road, and this post focuses on the first half from Puerto Montt until Coyhaique, one of the main hub cities of Southern Chilean Patagonia. We definitely came across a good number of backpackers and cyclists on the route, but in general we were so surprised at how little tourism there is on this spectacular route compared to the more well known parts of Patagonia. Of all the places we have been, above everything else, my recommendation is to take 2-3 weeks, rent a car (or bring a bike) and explore Patagonian along the Carretera Austral. You’ll be amazed.
It was a journey that included seeing amazing glaciers, visits to Northface founder Doug Tompkin’s parks (just following his death in Patagonia), rafting in one of the world’s best whitewater the Futaleufú, and world class fly fishing in the Río Simpson. We started this journey just days after leaving the incredible Cochamó valley. And as stunning as Cochamó was, it was a warm up to the incredible beauty in store for us.
First, I was always confused about what exactly is Patagonia. Patagonia is essentially the entire southern half of Chile and the border area with Argentina. While there are many stunning parks inside Patagonia, Patagonia is much more than just parks. Much of it is private ranches or giant ‘estancias’ of thousands of acres. There are tough cowboys or ‘gauchos’ who work this land on horseback and love drinking Yerba Mate. Most Patagonian towns have few full time residents, but they are full of tourists in the summer months from Dec – March. The primary food is fire roasted goat, lamb, Guanacos (a type of llama) or fresh trout or salmon. The wind is fierce and it makes it hard to grow fresh fruits and vegetables, even in summer. The Northern Patagonia Ice Field dominates this area, which has created magnificent mountains everywhere and the water pours from its glaciers into perfect crystal rivers and the bluest lakes on earth. Patagonia is a cathedral to the beauty of this planet and I suddenly realized I was making a pilgrimage, not just a vacation. I hope a place like this can remain so pure into the future.
It was fitting that our first stop was Parque Pumalín, a park owned and created by the foundation of the late Doug Tompkins who did so much work to conserve this spectacular region. He recently died in a kayak accident here, and I have deep gratitude for his work. He managed to stop many dams from being built on the rivers and he created several parks, like Pumalín, that are the most beautiful we’ve ever been. Thank you Doug! (BTW: Don’t feel like you should buy any Northface gear after reading this, that company has been owned by private equity firms and not Doug for a long time)
Rafting in Futaleufú
“Futa” as they say, is a little town with a tourquoise-blue river boasting amazing white water as the only attraction it needs to put it on the map and make it a must visit. The “Futa” River is supposedly the best white water rafting in all of Patagonia and there are many guides set up here to take you down these crystal clear class III, IV and V rapids – no experience needed either!! It took Jenine several days of debating but finally she agreed to join me on a full day trip that would include several class V rapids. Jenine was so nervous she barely slept the following two nights, however when we got to the office the morning of the trip, they told us the river was too high and the full day trip was cancelled. Luckily we could still do the easier half day trip, and Jenine was thrilled to be able to skip most of the class 5 rapids. Our guide turned out to be extremely safe as well and Jenine ended up loving it. Jeez, she says after it was over, “I was so panic stricken over that!!?!?!” Jenine is a rafter now.
Our Intro to Glaciers
The power force of Patagonia really are the massive glaciers that spill forward from the massive Patagonia Ice Field. Our next stop at Queulat Glacier put us up close to experience one of the finest and the beautiful waterfalls, lagoons and rivers that result from them.
There are not many buses on the Carretera Austral to move the tourists traveling on foot, so that means there are a lot of hitchhikers trying to get from one town to the next. As often as we could we opted to give people rides and this led us to meeting some great people, many of them young Chileans trying to explore their own country. One of these great people was a Santiagoan named Cesar. We met him coming into the park at Queulat and he joined us the next day on a couple amazing hikes (Queulat Mirador and the Bosque Encantado) and came with us to our camp in the fly fishing hot spot Rio Simpson. Cesar is a bird and butterfly biologist, and during our two hikes together we had our own personal nature guide. You cannot get better than that! Best of luck to you Cesar, we had so much fun with you and I’m sure we will see you again.
Finally, some awesome fly fishing! Rio Simpson!
The last highlight for us on the first half of the Carretera Austral, was camping with Nacho and his family on Rio Simpson. Nacho offers camping at his home, and he will teach you how to properly drink and, more importantly, serve Yerba Mate to others (which they are crazy for in Patagonia and all of Argentina), you can tour his greenhouses and buy fresh veggies (finally!!), his wife bakes delicious bread everyday and at night everyone joins around the fire in his indoor lodge to listen to him or other travelers sing and play songs on the guitar. There is an incredible vibe here or “muy buena onda” as they would say. It is also here that I met my fly fishing mentor for the next few days, my new friend Jack from New York. He has spent the last 3 summers staying with Nacho to fly fish the Rio Simpson and he quickly got me sorted with some beautiful new flies that he had just tied. It was so awesome to go fishing with Jack, he really showed me the best spots and best techniques to catch trout on the wonderful Rio Simpson, and I had success thanks to him. I definitely want to go back to Rio Simpson next year, and hopefully Jack will be there.
After these wonderful places, we ended back in Coyhaique, the last major city in Chile in the South. It was here that we reloaded for part 2 of the Carretera, which we will save for next time…
Thanks for reading!!